Sharapova the supernova as the Russian stars take over

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The Independent Online

Anna Kournikova could talk the talk and walk the walk but some ungracious souls doubted whether she could actually win anything. There are no such reservations about the latest blonde bombshell from the Russian munitions factory. Maria Sharapova can play and then some.

The 16-year-old wildcard debutante from Siberia yesterday clinically disposed of Jelena Dokic, the No 11 seed from Serbia, 6-4 6-4 to reach the last 16. It was such an impressive performance from Sharapova who, of course, has swapped Siberia for Florida, which has less salt mines, that observers began to wonder if she could go on to win the whole damn shooting match. Fanciful perhaps, but possibly not to the teenager who seems to improve with every round.

"When I come into a tournament I'm expecting to win," Sharapova said. "That's my philosophy. I can't go to a tournament thinking 'yeah I'm going to get my ass kicked'. I'm very happy and very surprised but I knew that one day it would come, one day all that hard work could pay off.''

The most surprising aspect of a thoroughly mature display was that this was her first appearance on a show court and she didn't bat an eyelid. "I love it. No 1 court was just unbelievable. When I stepped on I was like 'I'm not going to give her a chance today'. I wanted to be a winner on this court, right here, this moment.''

Instead of batting an eyelid she unleashed a series of punishing ground strokes, a double-fisted backhand complementing a searing forehand. She cleverly varied her serve which ranged from 80mph to more than 100mph. Volleys? Forget it. Anywhere near the net was no woman's land.

Dokic, at 20 almost old enough to be her opponent's maiden aunt, knew what Sharapova felt like. Four years ago, on the same court, she produced, at the age of 16, a giant-killing by knocking out the favourite Martina Hingis. Yesterday, Hingis was on Court One to witness the fall of Dokic. What goes around comes around.

"This was a different story,'' Dokic said. "I beat the No 1 in the world, I beat one of the greatest in the game.'' The girl from Belgrade, who represented Australia in the Sydney Olympics, was not effusive in her praise of her conqueror and not once did she refer to her by name.

"She played well, she took her chances when she had them. I had a lot of opportunities which I didn't take. It could have been a completely different story. She didn't have that much pressure on her. She just goes out and swings. She has nothing to lose. When you go out against her, you don't know what to expect. It will be different in a year or two when people know how she plays. She has a long way to go to win the tournament.''

Emphasising the fact that the young Russians are coming, Sharapova will play her compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova, who was 18 on Friday, for a place in the quarter-finals. Also through to the last 16 are Elena Dementieva and Anastasia Myskina, and Vera Zvonareva.

In the battle of the blonde ponytails, Sharapova was quite ruthless. Dokic's first mistake, after winning the toss and electing to serve, was to produce two double faults. She lost her serve, and that was all Sharapova needed to take the first set. Throughout, her trademarks are a clenched right fist, in an iron glove, and a slap of the thigh. This is accompanied by the exhortation to "come on", delivered either in English/American or Russian.

She also has the endearing habit of stuffing a tennis ball beneath her skirt, rather like a hamster storing food in its pouch. As for her notorious grunting, it is true that, unlike Maria in West Side Story, it is not the most beautiful sound you have ever heard but nor is it the most unattractive emission on the circuit. It is less a grunt and more like the noise a hare makes on being introduced to a couple of lurchers.

Serving for the first set at 5-4, Sharapova was break-point down but threw in an ace and a forehand winner that kissed the net cord. Clenched fist, slap of the thigh.

When she broke Dokic in the fifth game of the second set to love, again it was the only break of serve and again it was enough. As Dokic said, she had several break points but at every moment of crisis her opponent raised her game. She looks like a player for the big points and the big occasion.

Maria ended the match with an ace, dropped her racket and blew kisses to the crowd, who gave her a tremendous ovation. She loved every second of it. By the time she'd reached the umpire's chair, Dokic had left the court.

Is Maria strong enough to win Wimbledon? Probably not, although there is more fat on a matchstick. One thing is certain. She will not go quietly.

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